A Stay At The Inn
|I delivered this essay as a Sunday morning teaching at New Wine Covenant Church on 31 December, 2001. A recording of that teaching may be heard via the following link: A Stay At The Inn - Christopher Rath - 20011231.mp3|
The Christian Tradition is a written one; as opposed to many other faiths which have oral traditions. One would think that this fact would mean our faith would be objective and not subjective, rational and not emotional; however, this isn’t the case. There is an emotional, subjective component to our Christian faith which arises from our human nature.
The Bible story is not a complete story: not every moment of every Bible character’s life is portrayed in Scripture; not every thought is captured therein. This isn’t bad and it doesn’t indicate that Scripture is somehow lacking, but it does mean that our human imaginations long to fill in the spaces between the written details.
Our imaginations were created by God and He has said that His creation is good. That said, we must take care to use what He has given us in a manner befitting the Creator. Those holes between the facts are part of what gives Scripture life—enough life that Bible stories still come alive thousands of years after they were written down. As we ponder those openings we should seek to allow God to speak into them, breathe life into them, and enliven them for us—rather than only filling in the details by way of our fallen human nature and our fallen imaginations. Specifically, we may either allow God to guide our imagination, or we may solely direct it; the choice is ours and our decision will affect the images we subsequently place into the gaps.
This concept is important to remember during the Christmas season. The Christmas story is one of the most retold stories in history and many people’s imaginations have filled in the details and been publicized and popularized. In this essay I wasn’t to address one of those popularized, but (I believe) corrupted images: the scene where Joseph and Mary knock on the Bethlehem Inn Keeper’s door looking for a place to stay.
Let’s begin by reading what the Bible says about this event: Matthew, Mark, and John do not describe it at all; however, Luke makes a brief mention.
4–5Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. 6While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, 7and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.
8Now in this same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock. [REB]
As we can see, everything the Bible says about this popular image—of Joseph asking the Inn Keeper for lodging—is contained in less than a sentence. Luke simply says, “there wasn’t room in the inn.” From these simple words comes the popular myth that the Inn Keeper roughly treated Mary and Joseph when he denied them access to the Inn. While we must acknowledge that not all portrayals of the scene paint in thusly, it must also be acknowledged that the negative, confrontational image tends to stick most strongly in our own imaginations.
In order to reset our own picture of what may have happened let’s review the events that were described and the situation in which Mary and Joseph were looking for accommodation:
I believe these facts from the written tradition lead us to a scene that unfolds along the following lines:
So, how does the picture I just painted differ from the internal images of the scene that you carry around in your head? For many years my own mental picture was one from a Christmas pageant I had seen as a child; where the Inn Keeper spoke roughly to Joseph and then closed the door leaving Joseph and Mary to wander around Bethlehem and fend for themselves—an image that differs greatly from a rational approach to interpreting the story.
My closing exhortation to those reading this essay is that you would always seek to fill in the details with a God inspired imagination and not with either our fallen nature or with your own bad experiences from your past. While we like dramatic and exciting stories, life is usually not that way and we should not leap to fill in the details with overly dramatic material.